Day 4: Scandi traditions

The 25m heads up breaststroke is the traditional ice swim, winter swimming staple and the biggest race of the entire event. Ana and I didn’t race, but took part in another winter swimming tradition: the sauna.

The quintessential winter swimming event, heads up breaststroke is the most popular race with almost 650 participants of the 1300 who took part in this year’s Winter Swimming World Championship.

Most of us Seals took part, with only four providing the excellent spectator support that we’d enjoyed so far. Ana, Sonja, Susie and I watched Seal after Seal parade out to the start line among the colourful hats of the heads up swimmers, and the serious faces of the racers, each putting in performances that fitted somewhere along that line.

The crowd, the colours, the vibrant atmosphere seemed to have notched up a gear, with more flag waving and cheering as loud as the hats and team wear. Smooth and well-organised, row upon row of swimmers emerged from the changing area and transition hub to ‘take off their clothes’, ‘get in the water’ and ploughed their way to the other end of the pool.

Ana and I had both entered the untimed swim. That meant we could rock up at our pick of allocated times and swim in a pool next to the event pool. With this not being a race day, we decided to have a dip after the last 25m breaststroke race. So, after Laura had finished, we went to the changing area.

With a bit of time before our pool time, and very few swimmers left in the post-race area, we began with a sauna. The art of sauna is something Britain hasn’t quite got, but the rest of Europe takes very seriously. At the championships there were four saunas: a big event tent with a central bench and eight heaters, a traditional cabin, a van and an old VW Passat.

The SaunAudi was our favourite, and this was where we started. This yellow hatchback had been cleverly converted, lined with wood and with a burner on the passenger side dash. Inside, we found a large, convivial Russian doctor in budgie smugglers who invited us into his ‘Russian submarine’ and gave us tea from his flask.

SaunAudi – tradition with a twist

IMG_5468

We then went back to the transition hub to be led to the pool, where we swam 100m at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view from the pool. Team mate Bettina had lent me her Gopro so we could film the experience from the swimmer’s point of view.

Back in the hot tub and sauna to warm up, we experienced the deep-rooted Finnish spa tradition of putting your body through heat extremes. This is said to reduce lactic acid buildup in muscles, induce heat shock proteins and human growth hormone, and release several other hormones like norepinephrine. Also, it feels good, releases endorphins and reduces anxiety.

Ana and I certainly felt very relaxed afterwards as we wandered back to our apartment through the snowy, picturesque streets of Tallinn Old Town. This day felt like a traditional winter swimming, and it felt good to reflect on the Scandinavian roots of this wonderful event.

IMG_5514

Advertisements

Day 3: Nailing new experiences

The Big Day. All those mornings when I lay awake imagining my start, all those training swims in the lake, all those practice sprints in the pool; this is where it starts and ends, all in the space of less than 18 seconds, I hoped.

Waking up hungover was not ideal, but a fair price to pay for the experience of the night before. I think that’s probably the difference between me and the actual serious athletes, especially the speedy Russians.

For us Seals, this was one of our biggest events starring Bettina, Claudia, Susie, Sonja, Ana, Jim, Pete, Laura and Melissa. And me, of course. The support team at poolside was on form, flag in hand.

As our time approached, we went to the warm changing tent to prepare ourselves. Changing into our swimwear, we watched swimmers doing serious warm ups, whirling windmill arms, lunging slightly aggressively, psyching themselves up. More in the taking selfies and talking nonsense camp, we did a few token exercises.

The nerves gave me an almost electric out-of-body experience. I couldn’t keep still, fidgeting, heart hammering as our heat was called forwards. We sat on plastic seats with our laminated lane numbers, then as the next heat got called up, we moved forward to the next waiting place. Fellow Brit in my neighbouring lane, Susannah, gave me moral support, though she said I made her nervous.

Eventually, we were up. Walking out along poolside was such a buzz. Even though I’m not especially patriotic, I welled up as I heard my name: “In lane three, representing the UK, Rowan Clarke.” – what a thrill!

The start was very quick – too quick. “Take off your clothes,” said the announcer so we put our Dryrobes in our baskets. “Get in the water,” and we climbed down the steps. Then came the beep.

I had been obsessing about the start. I knew my reactions weren’t the sharpest, and that there was no proper solid wall from which to push off, and that at this distance, and with powerful quads, the push off would be important. I was slow to start, and my push lacked power. But I windmilled like hell, and swam well, coming third in my heat by 0.02 seconds.

To start of with I felt happy to have finished, then disappointed that I swam slower than I had done in practise swims. Then delighted to be 9th overall in my category. Then even more delighted to be British number one in my category and British number two out of all women after our own 24-year-old Laura, and ahead of Susie. And 66th woman in the world. Result! On International Women’s Day as well.

In our categories, Laura and I were both ninth, Susie was seventh, Sonja 11th, Claudia 14th, Bettina 10th and Ana 20th.

As though that wasn’t enough exercise, after a very brief lunch of a small slice of cake and a banana, we hopped in a mini-bus to forest just outside Tallinn to go cross-country skiing. We had a lesson on how to ski, before heading out on the track through the beautiful snowy forest.

In the evening, we went to a presentation about different winter swimming clubs from around the world, before coming back to our apartment for supper, and then heading out into the beautiful cobbled streets of the Old Town to Tallinn’s smallest bar, The Furry Owl.

A day of firsts, incredible highs, and unadulterated joy. My first World Championship race, my first time on skis, my first time crawling through a tiny hole to get into an underground bar.

 

Day 2: Fifties, two hundreds and thirtieths

There’s only one time in your life that it’s ok to set your alarm for 3.30am, and that’s when you’re going on the trip of a lifetime. We didn’t arrive in time to see Sonja’s amazing 200m achievement, but we still had plenty to look forward to.

This much anticipated day arrived, as much anticipated days do. The sick, lurching stomach feeling of the last few weeks reached a new high, now with added clammy palms.

Flying’s not my favourite, but with teammate and frequent flyer Claudia by my side, checking in at Bristol airport was pretty simple… Until I saw the plane. “I’ve never been on a plane that small,” I said trying not to convey how uneasy I felt about flying on a minibus with wings. But a short hop to Brussels, and a quick transfer later, the snowy coastline of Estonia was in view.

Meanwhile, the team in Tallinn were starting their events. Sonja, Susie and Laura swam the 50m freestyle, testing their bodies in -1ºC water. Laura came 7th, Sonja 10th, but Susie was disappointed with her start to her 50m race, though still managed a very respectable time.

Next up was Sonja’s 200m challenge. The entry requirements changed from before the event when you had to do a qualifier, to not doing a qualifier, to needing a pre-race ECG. Luckily, there was a cabin at the venue where you could pay €15 for an ECG, so that’s where Sonja found herself strapped to a machine monitoring her heart, making sure it was up to the job of keeping her alive during the race.

A 200m race at that kind of temperature is very testing. Even to an acclimatised swimmer the cold water zaps your energy, making your limbs heavy as your body prioritises giving heat and oxygen to the essential organs. At the same time, it demands more oxygen, making you feel short of breath.

Back home at the lake, Sonja regularly swims 200-300m quite comfortably, but even a degree less heat makes a huge difference, as do the nerves. But she came a fantastic 5th in her category and was the second British woman.

The other significant event of the day was Ana’s 30th birthday celebrations. We went to a quite incredible restaurant called Leib. Serving up local produce and Estonian specialities, we ate black bread, creamy goat’s cheese with pink beetroot and fennel, fresh fish from the Baltic with parsnip noodles and a speciality desert called mannavaht, a creamy, frothy semolina with fruit juice, cherry dust and egg yolk chips. No, really. Delicious!

I’ve not really been drinking much since Christmas, and having a hangover for my first (and most important to me) race was not part of the plan. But the accompanying wine and schnapps to finish were impossible to resist, so I didn’t.

After four hours’ sleep the night before, a full day, and a full stomach, I crashed at around 11pm feeling very grateful for the two hour time difference, and too tired to feel nervous about the next day.

Day 1: Off to a flying start

On the first race day, our team was represented by our youngest member, Laura, who put in a sterling performance in the 100m freestyle.

Actually, Laura’s wasn’t the first performance of the day. Those of us still on British soil woke up to a BBC Bristol interview with Jim, our senior team member. It’s well worth listening (about 1 hour 24 minutes in) about how Jim’s granddaughter made him give up his pipe and learn to swim, although he doesn’t exactly explain the leap from learning to swim to entering the World Winter Swimming Championships!

Back in Tallinn, Laura arrived in our pretty, bohemian apartment yesterday. Her first impression of the Estonian capital was that it’s very cold indeed. While we were treated to Siberian winds last week in the UK, the last couple of days have been distinctly spring-like and mild; not so in Estonia.

She was the only Seal to catch the opening ceremony, a parade of flags, music and dancing. Then, on to her first race (of six). Laura came third in her heat and eighth over all with an amazing time of 1:13.63. That’s quick.

Just to put it in context: the water temperature is below freezing, and swimming 100 metres at this temperature is incredibly hard. I swam the same distance at 5 degrees and was amazed by how much the cold water takes out of you. Laura fuelled her body with oxygen every two strokes, which is a good race tactic, but also completely necessary as it’s breathlessness that’s hardest over this kind of distance.

More Seals will be competing tomorrow: Susie, Sonja, Pete and Laura in the 50m freestyle, and Sonja will be facing the extremely demanding 200m freestyle, the second longest race in the whole championships.

Even more exciting for me, tomorrow I will be blogging from Tallinn.

A huge well done to Laura for today’s efforts, and here’s to equally heroic performances tomorrow!

IMG_5366

Our icy pool in Tallinn, Estonia

 

Tallinn here we come!

There aren’t many times in your life that you get the chance to enter a world championship. But here we are; a motley bunch with one thing in common – a love of winter swimming.

The World Winter Swimming Championships 2018 open tomorrow in Tallinn, Estonia. Arriving over the next couple of days, the Bristol-Clevedon area will be well represented by the South West Seals; there are 13 of us who swim regularly in Clevedon plus four or five more extra team members.

We’re staying in an Airbnb apartment. Our lovely host hasn’t filled us with confidence. His latest communications told us that ‘we have quite cold in Tallinn’ and to ‘take warm pyjamas just for heavens sake’.

Cue feelings of mild hysteria. We all know we can manage the water temperatures; we are all very well acclimatised having swum a weekly since the water started to cool in October, and we’ve all dipped in water around 0ºC. But it’s the grandness of the world stage, the tingle of excitement, the minus air temperatures, and what to wear to the gala dinner that flips our stomachs.

Over the next few days, we’ll post regular blogs for our friends, family and fellow cold water swimming aficionados to follow. This is where you’ll hear about our antics, adventures and, dare I say it, medals.

For some of us, this is our first competition. Ana and Jim have only learned to swim in the last year; Hillary, Anne and Tom only decided to enter at the last minute; Susie is our team captain, experienced championshipper, font of all knowledge and founder of the South West Seals. The rest of us have a mixture of experience from childhood club swimmers to recently trained swimmers who’ve taken part in a few galas, and a few of swam in the National Swimming Champs at Tooting Bec Lido last year.

IMG_5354

Last minute training today: L-R Anne, Sally, Hilary, Tom, Row, Ana, Susie, Sonja, Claudia

Most importantly, though, we have badges, team swimwear and gorgeous orange Clevedon Pier hats designed by our artist friend, Nancy Farmer.

Today some of us Seals practised our race starts and sprints. For most of us, this will be our last open water swim before we climb down the ladder to our starting positions for real. So watch this space, and let’s see how this motley bunch fares in the World Winter Swimming Championships 2018.

IMG_5319

Seals costume, Clevedon Pier hat and acclimatising in the snow!

 

Nice and Icy

With just over a week to go until the National Cold Water Swimming Championships, there’s time for one more chilly swim. Thanks to the recent cold snap, conditions at Clevedon’s Marine Lake have been perfect for training, with the water dropping as low as 2.5 degrees centigrade.

So what happens to your body at this temperature? And how best prepare yourself for swim in icy waters?

Standing lake-side, contemplating your icy dip, you are aware of how your body might respond. The cold shock response is first and most dramatic: gasping, hyperventilating as your skin cools; at the same time, your heart-rate shoots up as your arteries narrow. Then comes the numbness. As your body reserves the warm blood for your vital organs, your extremities become increasingly numb, heavy and useless. After half an hour or so, hypothermia becomes a risk – and remains so even after you get out, as your core temperature continues to drop.

Standing lake-side, you should be scared! If you don’t at least have butterflies, if not a full fight-or-flight feeling where you have to beat all instincts to get yourself in the water, you don’t fully understand the risks. You also need to bear in mind that this is a time for dipping, not distance swimming.

No matter how often I take an icy dip, I have the same sense of foreboding as I drive to the lake, which peaks as the cold air hits my skin when I undress. Changing into my costume among seasoned winter swimmers, the chatter is all along the lines of: why are we doing this? we must be mad! I don’t really want to. Testament to this is the high level of faffing that postpones the inevitable plunge!

And then, one-by-one, we enter the water. The easiest way for me, is to walk quickly down the metal steps into the lake, taking small in-breaths, and then purposefully blowing out, long and steady. This reduces the gasping hypo ventilation, gives me something to focus on other than the pain of the ice-cold, and lets me steady my breath and stroke as I swim away.

Most impressive is Maggie, who having inhaled two cigarettes while changing, dives headlong in from the side. But then she, like so many of my fellow swimmers, is one of the South West Seals’ old pros. This approach is not recommended for the uninitiated!

For safety reasons, I rarely swim alone. If not with fellow swimmers, I get someone to stand on the side and hold my Dryrobe. Plus, I need help to pull down my swimming costume straps when I get out, as my numb hands are quite useless. It’s also good to have someone to egg you on, and share coffee and cake afterwards.

What struck me as odd as the water temperature dropped, was that I didn’t get the ice-cream headache at four degrees that troubled me at ten degrees. Instead, my fingers take the punishment. The pain that comes with vasoconstriction is palpable. My hands hurt. The first time this happened, they froze like useless claws in a position that’s not conducive to swimming. So I learned to set them in place as paddles before I became unable to move them.

At sub-five degrees, I swim between 100 and 200 metres; no more. That’s up to seven minutes in the water, including faffing a bit and stopping to appreciate where I am, and admire Clevedon’s rather lovely pier; and on a crisp, clear day, look across to Wales.

This weekend, as I entered I got an applause from some onlookers. I admit that I loved this, and it was the audience I needed to break into a fast front-crawl that I plan on swimming next weekend instead of my usual neck-breaking heads-up breaststroke.

My CWSC event is a 30 metre swim as part of a relay team: it’ll be over before I know it. I feel ready, though; nervous, but excited. Perhaps next time, I’ll do a bit more. But for now, I feel an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and pure buzz from swimming in icy water!

What’s in my kit bag?

My kit has evolved as the season’s gone on. Here are what I consider to be essentials for winter swimming:

  • Swimming hat – I use a normal silicone cap, but you can get neoprene for more heat-loss prevention
  • Mask goggles – I love the Aquasphere Vista mask that covers the bit between your eyebrows and seems to prevent ice-cream headache pain
  • A Dryrobe – this was a Christmas present, and my favourite bit of kit. It’s so warm, plus keeps you covered as you try to get dressed with numb hands
  • A piece of foam rubber, matting, old towel on which to stand while you’re changing
  • Warm layers – I don’t bother with undies, but wear merino wool leggings under fleece-lined jogging bottoms, a thermal vest, long-sleeved top and my wonderful Dart 10k sherpa fleeced-lined hoodie
  • Hat and gloves
  • Flask of coffee
  • Hot water bottle
  • Some cake or chocolate – getting that digestive system going warms you up from the inside!

Get your chill on

This weekend is the Big Chill Swim across Windermere. I want to get in to open water swimming all year round. It’s the exhilaration, the way your skin prickles and makes you really feel. I’ve plunged into cold water; I totally get the thrill. But I’m yet to brave it…

Standing on a rock in the Picos mountains in Spain, I looked down at the beautiful turquoise pool below. It seemed infinitely deep, and with the heat of the Spanish summer sun on my back, it was so inviting. But in the mountains the temperature of the water so close to source was fricking freezing.

Still, the plunge, the mind-numbing, body-shocking plunge, was exhilarating. The change in body temperature awakening the mind and focusing the senses. It’s the same principle as having a cold shower or plunge pool after a sauna; and it’s supposed to be good for your bodily functions and circulation too, which you can read about here.

But plunging or showering in cold water when you’re hot is very different to swimming across a pond on Hampstead Heath in February as described in this blog (with which I’ve completely fallen in love: beautiful photography, great writing).

So why swim in freezing cold water on a freezing cold day? Your limbs feel heavy and sluggish as your body decides your vital organs need warm, oxygenated blood more than your extremities. A friend of mine did an open water swim where you weren’t allowed to put your head under the water or you’d die. Extreme.

6a00d83453140969e201287659b66c970c.jpg

Lewis Gordon Pugh: the world’s best open water swimmer

And don’t we just love an extreme? I’ve been reading blogs and articles by cold swimming affeciondos like this, and I can’t find any actual physical benefit to cold water swimming like those of the sauna then cold shower. Rather the benefit seems to be mental, feelings of euphoria, strength and confidence. So really the same reasons anyone does an extreme sport or activity.

Of course, we shouldn’t be dismissive of these kinds of mental and almost spiritual advantages. While to some cold swimming might seem like torture, if you read the words of those who do it, it’s easy to see why it becomes a kind of addiction.

Having been inspired to try cold water swimming, it’s tempting to grab my wetsuit and head to the nearest body of water (which wouldn’t be far as we’re currently on flood alert!). But I’m not going to. Not yet, anyway. It would be more sensible to start after a summer season of open water swimming, where you swim regularly getting used to the temperature as it slowly drops.

The Open Water Swimming Society has a fantastic article on getting in to cold water swimming, including a section by a doctor on what the cold water does to your body. It sounds a little daunting, but actually he’s not saying much more than you’ll need to pee more, you’ll gasp, shiver and be really, really hungry afterwards.

199498_10150172788371131_2865938_n

Swimming, I mean enduring, the sea with friends in Bantham in March

I prefer swimming in fresh water to salty, but the marine lake in Clevedon has a group that swims all year round. I have just requested to join them. My cousin has membership with Henleaze Swimming Club in Bristol, which has events throughout the year.

But my ultimate goal is the Big Chill Swim. “There is a long tradition of open water swimming around the world and we feel that the uplifting experience of long distance swimming and winter swimming should be experienced by everyone.” These words just goad me into thinking my open water swimming experience won’t be complete until I’ve frozen off my very own tits swimming across Windermere.

Finally. The world swimming under ice record. Amazing. Insane.